Padma Shri Geeta Chandran ushers in social change through artforms
Padma Shri Geeta Chandran aims to usher in social change through dance and music. Bharatanatyam and Carnatic Vocal Music are Padma Shri Geeta Chandran’s life and soul, and they continue to define who she is today. Not only has she been able to shape her personality into one of discipline and grit through these forms, but she has also been able to connect Indian youth with their roots and bring about social change. By extending dance and music beyond art, she is fostering social change and encouraging dialogue in society.
Her Voice, Imagining Peach, Toilet use education campaign, Female Feticide, Warp and Wet, a reminder of Gandhian Values and Choices, gender equality and financial security for women are some of the issues she has raised through her art in the past. Geeta Chandran, (Guru Padma Shri) began studying classical dance at the age of five under her first Guru Smt. Swarna Saraswati, descendant of the traditional ‘Daasi Parampara’. Having learned from several stalwart Gurus, she feels blessed to continue learning as she firmly believes that learning never stops.
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She has contributed to the charm of Bharatanatyam with delicate shades of abhinaya and challenging nritta sequences. In addition to her expertise in Bharatanatyam, she is also an excellent singer in Carnatic music. Founder and President of Natya Vriksha and illustrious performer, she has contributed greatly to Bharatanatyam’s popularity and progression. She performs, teaches, conducts, sings, collaborates, organizes, writes, and motivates youth audiences as part of her En-dance the Universe mission.
In an exclusive interview, Geeta Chandran talks about her journey as a dancer and a vocalist, her expertise to master this artform, and her trailblazing endeavour to portray social issues through the medium of Bharatanatyam dance and Carnatic music.
How would you like to describe your journey as a dancer and a vocalist?
Since my childhood, I have been immersed in both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music. Even after all these decades, I still consider myself a continuing student of dance, however I have been learning Carnatic vocal music formally for almost 25 years. In a way, these two artforms have shaped me. I am who I am because of them. It is impossible for me to separate myself from my art.What are things that you think you learnt only because of Bharatanatyam?
Bharatanatyam has given me a thousand eyes and the ability to live fully through all the senses. And not just the five physical senses, but also the senses of perception, imagination, intellect, and creativity. Additionally, exceptional discipline and excellent time management skills. This was all the result of my engagement with Bharatanatyam.
How much dedication should a person have to master this art form?
The word dedication is a poor one. You should love the art form you are pursuing with a passionate and robust devotion. Art must consume one’s living and sleeping hours. Even at night, I dream about Bharatanatyam. Every cell in my body is a Bharatanatyam cell.Any art form requires huge sacrifices and one must be prepared to bring it for the long haul. Become patient, learn without stakes, and keep growing. Recognition and everything else could follow; but of course, there are no guarantees.
That is why artists are so rare and must be cherished.Do you think the essence of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music has somewhere been lost in the modern world?
On the contrary. In a world today where everyone is wearing similar clothes, eating similar food and listening to similar music, the unique identity that a traditional art form brings is something that yields a“wow” factor.
And both Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam have droves of young students flocking to learn these art forms. But then many fall by the wayside defeated by the strict rigour and commitment the art forms demand. They consume you, and most of today’s younger generation want results in a hurry. Therefore, classical arts are not for them.
When you decided to dedicate yourself fully to Bharatanatyam, did you have any second thoughts after you took it up professionally?
In retrospect, it was a tough decision for me; to give up a lucrative career in Maths Stats or Communications and opt for the long and lonely haul in the dance. In today’s world of corporate remuneration, I wonder if I would have made the same choice now. But then when salaries were reasonable but not stratospheric, I ventured into uncharted waters without any set course. As a dancer, I forged my own path.How would you say Bharatanatyam contributes towards gender equality?We are in a good place here. The majority of dancers are women who earn their living through their art. That gives them financial confidence and courage.
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How do you portray social issues through your dance?
I strongly believe that artists must reflect the times and society in which they live. The world around us is not flawless either. Since the beginning, I wanted to use my dance to articulate issues that moved me and challenged me. So, I evolved a genre of performance-dialogue through which I raise contemporary issues through my classical performances. Previous works like HER VOICE and IMAGINING PEACE raise the issues of the meaninglessness of violence. KAIKEYI spoke about stigma and villainization. MYTHOLOGIESRETOLD addressed the issue of female foeticide. In ANEKANTA, the focus became the Indian Constitution’s vision of an inclusive society. And GANDHI: WARP AND WEFT was a reminder of Gandhian values and choices.
My new work SIMHIKA: DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST focuses on issues faced by forest dwellers, their struggle with urban expansion, their vulnerability and their quest for justice.You have conceptualized a toilet use education campaign.
Is there any particular incident or reason that Led you to take up this particular issue?
I have danced in several countries abroad and in remote corners of our own country. It is a striking difference that Indian toilets stink, regardless of whether they are in cities or villages; on airplanes or trains. I have encountered horrible toilets everywhere.
This became the basis of my campaign. We Indians are never taught how to use a Toilet simply because we think of toilets as outside the pale of polite society and conversation. However, toilets are crucial to everyone’s health, and especially to women’s health. The purpose of my campaign is to raise awareness about using toilets with sensitivity and leaving them clean for the next person. My slogan is: You have a right to a clean toilet, but the person after you has an equal right to a clean toilet.
How did dance help you to survive the lockdown?
Dance helped me survive two COVID attacks and a long lockdown period without performance opportunities. Yet, I found inner resilience and strength to face these odds. I was at my creative zenith. In isolation, I was able to complete several unfinished ideas for performances. The lockdown didn’t mean a slowdown for me. In fact, the very opposite was true.
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What steps should be taken by the people and the government of the country to promote classical art forms?
I think it is time to look beyond the government which is overloaded with requests and diverse agendas. I am excited about community-funding for the arts and of corporates taking Corporate Culture Responsibility seriously.
Culture needs people and resources to support and we should create new systems where artists can pursue their art with dignity and financial security. New modes of insurance and pension for artists should be evolved. There is so much more to be done.What challenges do you think classical dance forms face in gaining the rightful place in the hearts and minds of the people?The problem is getting audiences to leave their homes and phones and come to watch performances.
Once they come, they get hooked and it becomes a habit. Anyone who sees a high-quality performance, remains entranced by the arts. The problem is that too many mediocre performances also happen that drive audiences away. So, we probably need a strict ranking of performance quality to ensure that the arts can thrive.
What is your favourite thing about being a dance guru and teaching the future generations?
Students keep us young at heart. Every interaction with students fills me with rasa. And each generation challenges the teaching pedagogy, and so I have to be alert and devise innovative ways for my teaching to remain effective. Teaching keeps me young!
Summarize in a few words what dance means to you?
Dance is why I live, it’s ME!
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